Tag Archives: disinformation

Censors for democracy

On 17 January, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a report written by Marcus Kolga, Stemming the Virus: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian disinformation. Kolga claimed that, ‘The information warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in against Canada and its allies is total, and its objective is to tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government and institutions.’

Kolga’s report went on to list a whole series of individuals, organizations and publications which he believes are assisting the Kremlin in its dastardly plan. This blog was featured in a graphic titled ‘Illustration of a disinformation campaign’. Irrussianality was grouped with the likes of InfoWars as a ‘Pro-Kremlin, Conspiracy Theory, Extremist Platform’, and depicted as a conduit through which ‘False narratives’ generated by the Russian government are channelled to the ‘general public/voters’. On the next page of the report Kolga then alleged that such ‘platforms’ aimed ‘to generate support for Kremlin positions, discredit critics and opponents by all means available, and sow confusion and turn societies against each other in the West.’

Continue reading Censors for democracy

Advertisements

It lies within

In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, long before the current frenzy about ‘fake news’ and Russian ‘disinformation’, British journalist Nick Davies sought to explain why the global media contained so much ‘falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.’ According to Davies, up to about the 1980s, mass media was not predominantly concerned with money-making. In particular, what one might call ‘serious’ broadsheet newspapers were rarely profitable and often lost substantial amounts of money. They stayed in business because of the subsidies of rich proprietors who felt that owning a newspaper gave them prestige and political influence. In the 1980s Rupert Murdoch changed all that, and set about turning the mass media into a source of revenue. One way of doing this was by cutting costs, which entailed reducing payroll. Thus began a process in which the number of journalists employed by Western media organizations has plummeted. This process has accelerated in recent years, with newsroom jobs falling by 23% between 2008 and 2017 alone. At the same time, the internet has led to a vast increase in the number of media organizations. The internet has also created intense pressure to produce stories quickly. The result is fewer and fewer journalists forced to produce more and more stories faster and faster. The inevitable consequence has been a decline in quality.

Along the way, investigative journalism, which is slow and labour intensive, has fallen largely by the wayside. Instead, modern journalism has become largely a matter of cutting and pasting. Davies and his research team examined where the stories in newspapers came from. They discovered that the overwhelming majority came from two sources: a) a handful of press agencies, such as AP and Reuters; and b) press releases issued by governments and private corporations. Only a few organizations, such as the BBC, produce most of their own news reports. The majority just cut and paste from press agencies or press releases. Fact checking – which is also slow and labour intensive – has largely disappeared. In his 2006 book War Reporting for Cowards, British journalist Chris Ayres explained how the process works. Arriving in New York as the new US correspondent for the London Times, Ayres meets his predecessor. His job, she tells him, is to watch CNN and read the New York Times and then transcribe them for a British audience. Enough said!

My last post was on a very trivial matter, but I wrote it because it encapsulates the sloppy journalism which results from this process. Unfortunately, it’s endemic, and given the pressures that journalists operate under, it’s probably inevitable and not really their fault. Davies comments that these pressures mean that it’s relatively easy for governments and corporations to manipulate the media. Needing stories, journalists will snap up official press releases and regurgitate them without too much critical analysis. Others will then copy them, and before long the story is accepted everywhere. If you want to know why the English-language media overwhelmingly accepted government claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, this explains a lot.

What Davies doesn’t go into, but I think is also important, is the latitude the modern cut-throat media process creates for biases to influence reporting. Many issues are contested. Perhaps more than one party is issuing press releases. You don’t have time to check the competing narratives, or maybe look for some middle ground. The editor wants the story out now. So you have to choose. Whose press release do you cut and paste? The one issued by the side you believe more reliable, obviously. And how do you decide that? Perhaps years of experience have taught you the correct answer. But perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference. Reporting on Syria, do you cut and paste the White Helmets’ latest press release, or that of the Syrian government? You don’t like the Syrian government, so you go with the former. Ideally, you’d do more research, but, as I said, there’s no time, so biases govern.

Davies also points out that at any time there is a ‘story’ which prevails. If everybody else is reporting on something, then editors feel that they have to be reporting on it too, regardless of whether there is anything to it. If you want to sell copy, you can’t be the only outlet which is ignoring the ‘story’. You can see this with what is called ‘Russiagate’. For the past two years, Russian ‘electoral interference’, ‘disinformation’ and so on have been the ‘story’. Journalists therefore leap upon anything which feeds this story, even if it doesn’t actually amount to much. By contrast, anything which suggests a different story is ignored. You can see this in the case of the British-run Integrity Initiative, a shady organization funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and dedicated to combatting ‘Russian propaganda’. As Kit Klarenburg points out in an article in Sputnik News, the Integrity Initiative set up one of its ‘clusters’ of like-minded opinion formers in Germany. This cluster was headed by a former British Member of Parliament Harold Elletson, who is believed to have once worked for the British secret intelligence service MI6. Imagine if it became known that a secret network had been set up in Germany to push pro-Russian stories in the German media, and that this network was funded by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and led by a former Russian Duma Deputy who had at one time worked for the Russian intelligence service SVR. One suspects that it would be front-page headlines. Journalists would be all over it. It now turns out that a British funded network, run by a former British spy, has been recruiting Germans to influence Germany public opinion. It seems newsworthy. But how much attention has it gathered from the ‘mainstream’ media? Practically none. It doesn’t fit the ‘story’.

Attentive readers will note that in two days I have twice referenced the Russian media organization Sputnik. This is kind of odd, as I doubt that I have ever read more than about five Sputnik stories. But the narrative above tells me why people might decide to read more. Too much reporting in Western media is sloppy, inaccurate, and biased. I’m certainly not saying that all of it, or even most of it, is. There are some excellent journalists and some first class reporting. But when it comes to Russia, there is a lot which falls short, more than enough for many intelligent readers to realize that something isn’t quite right. The result is a loss of faith in the mainstream media, which induces some to defect to alternative sources, be it Sputnik or anything else.

Those alternative sources may, of course, be worse. But it seems to me to be wrong to blame them for the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the like. Those who campaign against Russian disinformation often demand that governments take action against RT, Sputnik, and others, and propose setting up counter-disinformation centres dedicated to exposing Russian fake news and spreading their own version of the truth. But none of this addresses the root cause of the problem – the failings of our own traditional media. I’m not sure what the solution is – the pressures of the market and the processes unleashed by modern information technology are what they are – but the solution certainly doesn’t involve blaming others. If you don’t report on the Integrity Initiative, for instance, of course people will turn to Sputnik to read about it. And frankly, they’re right to do so – where else can find out about this stuff? So what I’d say to our information warriors is that if you don’t want people turning to Sputnik¸ you first need to get your own act together. As I’ve said before, the root of problem doesn’t lie without; it lies within.

Today’s fake news pedantry

How does fake news get propagated? There are many answers. One is bad translations. Did Vladimir Putin really say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the ‘greatest tragedy’ of the 20th century? Many would say not. The official translation is that the collapse was ‘a major geopolitical catastrophe’, which though similar is actually very different. Did ex-President Ahmadinejad of Iran really say that Israel must be ‘wiped off the map’? Some say yes, but others like Juan Cole argue that what he actually did was express a hope that someday Israel would disappear – again similar, but fundamentally different. The point here is that dodgy, or at the very least contestable, translations can rapidly gain a life of their own and be accepted as absolute truth. They then spread far and wide as a sort of fake news.

Which brings us to this week’s revelation that Vladimir Putin was once an artilleryman. While at university, it seems, he had the rank of reserve artillery lieutenant. This previously unknown detail from Putin’s past soon appeared throughout the Western press. The Guardian, for instance, reported that,

Vladimir Putin has revealed that he commanded an artillery battalion during the Soviet period, a detail of his shadowy biography that was previously unknown.

Putin made the comment during a visit on Monday to St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, where he pulled the lever on a cannon that fires a daily salute at noon over the Neva River.

“I received the rank of lieutenant as an artilleryman, as the commander of a howitzer artillery battalion… 122mm [calibre],” Putin said, according to video footage posted by the Kremlin. He gave no further details.

Other press outlets leapt onto the battalion commander bandwagon. ‘Putin reveals for the first time that he commanded an artillery battalion,’ says the Daily Mail. ‘Vladimir Putin says he once commanded an artillery battalion,’ claims NewsweekAnd so on.

Except Putin didn’t say anything of the sort.

An artillery unit consists of individual guns grouped together into batteries (normally four to eight guns per battery). Batteries are then grouped into battalions (which the Brits sometimes call regiments, though Russian regiments are larger, consisting of several battalions). Assuming six guns a battery, and three batteries per battalion, an artillery battalion might have 18 guns. That’s a lot for a junior reserve lieutenant to command.

The Russian term for an artillery battalion is ‘divizion’ (дивизион), which shouldn’t be confused with ‘diviziia’ (дивизия), which is the equivalent of the Western term ‘division’. But Putin did not say that he had commanded a divizion; he said he had commanded a ‘vzvod’ (взвод). More precisely, his exact words were: ‘ Я получил звание лейтенант как артиллерист, командир взвода управления гаубичной артиллерии’, which translates roughly as ‘I received the rank of lieutenant, as an artilleryman, commander of the control platoon of howitzer artillery’.

So Putin did not say that he commanded an artillery battalion. What he actually said was that he commanded a platoon.

Did anybody get this right? I’ve been able to find only one outlet which did – Sputnik News (though even this managed to screw things up by talking about an artillery ‘division’, which is probably a confusion with the Russian word ‘divizion’, i.e. battalion). Thus Sputnik tells us:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 7 January that he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant as platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division.

‘It turns out, we are both artillerymen. I was promoted to lieutenant as an artilleryman, platoon commander of a howitzer artillery division… 122-millimetre [calibre]’, Putin stated.

I realize that this may appear stunningly pedantic. Battalion, platoon, what does it matter? It matters because in the first place, if you can’t get basic facts right, you don’t deserve to be trusted; and second, because it tells us something about how ‘fake news’ spreads. Someone says something which others consider a juicy story, and then they just repeat it. Along the way, nobody bothers to check the facts. The result is completely false headlines which will no doubt soon be repeated far and wide as established truth.

The battalion commander story was obvious nonsense. Anybody with a tiny bit of knowledge of military affairs should have realized that a reserve lieutenant could not possibly have commanded a battalion. The Guardian, which got it wrong, is of course a bastion of top notch journalism, despite publishing such bloopers as last week’s claim that Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker theory (that Stalin intended to attack Germany in 1941) ‘now has broad acceptance among historians’ (it doesn’t, and has been thoroughly debunked in great detail by Gabriel Gorodetsky and others). Sputnik, on the other hand, which got it right, is a purveyor of fake news and ‘disinformation’. Go figure!

False flag confession

Good stories are like London buses. You can wait ages for one to come along, and then you get two or three all at once. Yesterday, we had the result of the inquest into the death of Alexander Perepilichny. Today, among others, we have a stunner of a story out of Alabama. The former undermined conspiracy theories about a supposed campaign of international murder led by Vladimir Putin. The latter reveals a conspiracy nobody so far had even theorized about. But it turns out that it’s not Russians doing the conspiring. Instead, it’s Americans pretending to be Russians in order to create the impression that there’s a Russian conspiracy where in fact there isn’t. Confused? Don’t worry, it will soon become clear.

In general, when I see the words ‘false flag operation’, I tend to roll my eyes and wonder what crazy nonsense is about to follow. In my opinion, false flag operations are quite rare. What’s even rarer is for somebody to admit to one. But, according to the New York Times, that’s exactly what the American cyber security firm New Knowledge has done in an internal report. The name New Knowledge may not mean much to you all, but if you follow Russia-related news you are no doubt aware of two reports released by the US Senate this week which purport to show the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election via social media. New Knowledge wrote one of these. What the organization did not say in its report to the Senate, however, was that New Knowledge itself had been engaged in electoral ‘interference’ of a thoroughly dodgy kind.

In 2017, there was a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in Alabama. The main contenders were Republic candidate Roy Moore and Democratic candidate Doug Jones, the latter of whom won by a margin of just under 22,000 votes. It now turns out that New Knowledge played a part in Jones’s victory. According to the report revealed by the New York Times, New Knowledge admits that:

We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.

The New York Times states that this plan ‘involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.’ These ‘Russian accounts’ were, however, nothing of the sort; they were false flags, designed to make it look as though the Russians were backing Mr Moore, thereby discrediting him and energizing his Democratic opponents. The ruse worked. American media picked up on the story that Russian social media bots were campaigning on behalf of Roy Moore, and spread the lie further. The New York Post, for instance, published an article entitled ‘Roy Moore flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers’. As it turns out, this headline was inadvertently true – the Russian Twitter followers were indeed ‘fake’, just not in the way that the Post understood it.

According to the New York Times, the false flag operation in Alabama cost about $100,000 dollars. It cites one Democratic operative as saying that it was ‘impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact on the race’. The Alabama campaign cost about $51 million. By contrast, the 2016 presidential campaign cost around $6.4 billion. That’s 127 times as much, meaning that the equivalent to the $100,000 spent by New Knowledge in Alabama would be $12.7 million. I’ve seen various estimates as to the amount spent by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) prior to the 2016 presidential election, but none come close to $12.7 million. For instance, the IRA is said to have spent $47,000 on Facebook advertisements (compared to $81 million spent by the Clinton and Trump campaign). Add in some more money spent on Twitter and other platforms, and it’s still not a massive expenditure. Yet somehow, it’s regarded as decisive in the way that the proportionally much larger $100,000 spent on the Senate campaign was not. One may be excused a little scepticism.

To summarise, what we have here are some Americans pretending to be Russians pretending to be Americans, with the aim of smearing a political candidate with what they knew to be a false accusation. And yet we are meant to trust these same people as neutral reporters on the matter of Russian ‘meddling’ in American democracy. It strikes me that they have something of a credibility problem.

There is, of course, a lot of nonsense on social media, some of it just the outpourings of deluded individuals, and some of it the automated products of so-called ‘troll factories’. Unfortunately, the lead in combatting this (in my mind, much exaggerated) problem has been taken by highly partisan actors who are themselves less than trustworthy. New Knowledge is one example. The Integrity Initiative in the UK is another. So too are the numerous reports about Russian information warfare produced by organizations such as the Institute of Modern Russia and the Centre for European Policy Analysis, as well as the books churned out by Luke Harding, Timothy Snyder, and others, all of whom spread fear of Russian disinformation while presenting a very odd version of reality themselves. In the case of New Knowledge, they even admit to deliberately deceiving American voters. As so often, those claiming to protect us against external enemies in fact threaten us more than the alleged enemies themselves.

Death by natural causes

One of the most serious charges against the ‘Putin regime’ in Russia is that it routinely murders its political opponents. In the cases of Aleksandr Litvinenko and the attempted killing of Sergei Skripal, there is some good reason to believe that the Russian intelligence services were involved. Beyond those two examples, however, hard evidence of Russian state involvement in the extrajudicial killings of journalists, opposition figures, and others is almost entirely lacking. As I pointed out in my review of Amy Knight’s book Orders to Kill, the thesis that Putin is bumping off his enemies left, right and centre relies ‘for the most part on pure speculation and argument by means of insinuation, devoid of any actual evidence.’ This, however, has not stopped such speculation from spreading so far and wide that it has become accepted almost as fact.

Take, for instance, the case of Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian financier who participated in the infamous money laundering scheme which led to the death in prison of Bill Browder’s accountant Sergei Magnitsky. Fearing prosecution for his crimes, Perepilichny fled to the UK, where he turned whistleblower, revealing information about illegal flows of Russian money into Swiss banks. In 2012, Perepilichny died while out jogging. One might imagine that a low-level crook like Perepilichny would be well below the radar of the Russian president, but that did not stop widespread speculation that the fugitive money launderer had been assassinated on Putin’s orders. And before long a whole stream of articles appeared in the press claiming just that.

For instance, Buzzfeed, as part of a whole series of stories about alleged victims of Russian state murder squads, reported that it had ‘uncovered explosive evidence of a suspected Kremlin assassination plot.’  Perepelichny, it said, was ‘likely assassinated on the direct orders of Vladimir Putin.’   It quoted information allegedly provided to the British government by American spies, as well as Chris Phillips, the former head of Britain’s Counter Terrorism Security Office, who told Buzzfeed that, ‘It’s so obvious that it’s an assassination. There’s no way it wasn’t a hit.’

Others were a little less forthright, refusing to say point blank that Putin did it, but nonetheless speculating on the matter in such a way as to suggest very strongly that this was the case. The Atlantic magazine, which one might well consider a far more established and respectable outlet that Buzzfeed, published a long investigation into the Perepelichny story which relied heavily on the evidence of Bill Browder. According to The Atlantic, ‘Browder had no doubt that Perepilichny was murdered.’ It concluded, ‘In Perepilichny’s case, a number of factors might make it impossible to prove he was murdered,’ but the Russian secret service ‘have a near-perfect record of killing without leaving conclusive evidence, only a trail of suspicion. Whether or not Alexander Perepilichny is part of that record, only they know.’ Leaving it hanging in the air in this way, the magazine thus managed to avoid a conclusion while insinuating one very strongly.

In the same way, Foreign Policy magazine included the Perepilichny case in an article entitled ‘A Brief History of Attempted Russian Assassinations by Poison’. And the Washington Post mentioned it also in an article entitled ‘The long, terrifying history of Russian dissidents being murdered abroad.’ Perepilichny was not, of course, a ‘dissident’, but by now, the idea that this was murder was so well established that inconvenient little details no longer mattered.

Today, a British inquest into Perepilichny’s death concluded its work. This morning, as the inquest wound up, headlines continued to treat the case as murder. For instance, just two hours before the coroner issued his verdict, The Independent newspaper ran the headline, ‘Alexander Pereplichny inquest: Who was the Russian millionaire allegedly murdered by Kremlin officials.’ The Independent then went on to report that, ‘Unconfirmed reports claim MI6 received intelligence indicating Perepilichny was “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him”.’ Around the same time, in an article which has since disappeared from the internet, the Daily Mirror cited the words of the coroner to frame the Russians’ death as ‘murder’, leaving little doubt that this was in fact the case.

And then – shock, horror!  – the inquest verdict came in. As the Mirror had to report, in contradiction to its previous article (which, it seems, was quickly withdrawn in shame), ‘Russian whistleblower who mysteriously collapsed while jogging “died of natural causes”,’ That’s right. The inquest has concluded that Perepilichny was not murdered after all. Rather the coroner, Justice Nicholas Hilliard QC, remarked that,

I am satisfied on the evidence I have heard I can properly and safely conclude that it was more likely than not that he [Perepilichny] died of natural causes, namely sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. There really is no evidence that he was unlawfully killed.

Well this is embarrassing. We’ve heard a lot in the past couple of years about Russia ‘disinformation’, ‘fake news’, and the like. And for sure, if you get all your news from Russian sources, you’re going to end up with a very lopsided view of the world. But as this story shows, there’s no shortage of nonsense in Western media too. The difference is that whereas there’s a huge army of well-funded institutions and individuals now devoted to uncovering and countering ‘Russian disinformation’, there seems to be little or no accountability for the false stories produced by Western sources. Will Amy Knight, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, and all the others now apologise for spreading a false story? Will the Integrity Initiative or any of the other projects set up to counter ‘disinformation’ call them out for it? Don’t count on it. More likely they’ll just suggest that Justice Hilliard got it wrong. And then they’ll wonder why people choose to trust internet trolls instead.

The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses

Headlines often don’t reflect the content of stories. Editors know that it’s the headlines that gather readers, and so they do their best to jazz them up so as to make the stories sound far more important or controversial than they really are. In the current frenzy of Russia-related fearmongering, this has meant that followers of the media have been subjected to a deluge of scary-sounding headlines making it seem as if Russians and their agents are spreading chaos everywhere, only to find on reading the stories that it’s a massive fuss about nothing and that substantive evidence supporting the headlines is almost entirely lacking.

So it is with the Atlantic Council latest report, The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3, which is the third in a series purporting to expose high-profile Europeans who are subverting democracy from within as witting or unwitting agents of the Russian government. The title implies that the report is going to be full of hard-hitting revelations of politicians and journalists taking the Kremlin’s money, acting on its orders, and saying or doing things which genuinely threaten the European way of life. And indeed, on its website, the Atlantic Council tempts you to read the report by saying that, ‘the Kremlin’s tentacles do not stop in Ukraine, Georgia, or East Central Europe. They reach far and deep in the core of western societies.’ But the result is a disappointment. For what the report actually tells you is that in Northern Europe there is next to nobody questioning the prevailing narrative about Russia. A better title might be something like The Almost Absolute Conformity of Northern European Elites and the Total Absence of Russian Tentacles. No doubt, however, nobody would read such a thing, and so we get a big scary title instead.

trojan horses

Continue reading The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses

Lack of integrity

According to an article published by RT on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has unearthed ‘a massive UK-led psyop to create a “large-scale information secret service” in Europe – all under the guise of countering “Russian propaganda.”’ As RT notes, Anonymous has made public documents allegedly originated by a project known as the Integrity Initiative (the ‘psyop’ in question). Despite RT’s breathless claims, I certainly wouldn’t call the uncovered operation ‘massive.’ Nor is it quite as scandalous as RT tries to make out, nor quite as secret, given that the project has a public website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns about it.

On its website, the Integrity Initiative describes itself as:

a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. … our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous. … We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.

In the leaked documents, the Integrity Initiative makes it clear that the ‘propaganda and disinformation’ which it has in mind is primarily Russian. Furthermore, the initiative not only works with government departments and agencies, but is largely financed by them. According to the documents revealed by Anonymous, the Integrity Initiative’s funding comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), NATO, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Facebook, and the German business community. If this was a Russian project, we can have little doubt that Western commentators would denounce it as an ‘arm of the Kremlin’.

An Integrity Initiative handbook, which is among the items revealed by Anonymous, states that the project operates by forming ‘a cluster of well-informed people from the political, military, academic, journalistic and think-tank spheres, who will track and analyse examples of disinformation in their country and inform decision-makers and other interested parties about what is happening.’ This setup is unusual. Normally, academics, journalists, and think tankers operate independently from government. Here, they are collaborating. Among the British cluster members are members of Parliament, diplomats, Ministry of Defence staff, think tank personnel (from Chatham House, RUSI, Henry Jackson Society, etc), and journalists (from the BBC, The Times, and the Financial Times). The network also extends to academia, as the project is run in conjunction with the Free University of Brussels. As one of the leaked documents comments, this provides the benefit of ‘enhancing the academic respectability of the project’. As an academic, this makes me uneasy; I can’t help but feel that giving ‘academic respectability’ to secretive political projects isn’t what universities are for.

Beyond that, an application for funding from the FCO explains that the purpose of the initiative is ‘to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence. … Our programme to date has helped the UK to lead this process. Expanding this success will cement UK’s influence in N. America and in Europe post-Brexit.’ This makes it very clear that this is not a research project but a political one. Those joining the network aren’t neutral researchers, but active participants in a political campaign against Russia led by the British state and NATO. I have trouble understanding why either academics or journalists should consider this to be their job.

The project’s politics are made clear by its starting assumptions, as laid out in the funding request mentioned above. This document states:

Russia’s leaders say that Russia is at war with the West. The existence of democracy poses a threat to their dictatorial system. Undermining and ultimately destroying Western democratic institutions is Russia’s way of neutralising this ‘threat’. … … the Western system of democratic values will benefit for being protected against attack by those powers who would seek to overturn our system and all it stands for.

This statement is extreme even by current standards. For a start, I can’t recall any Russian ‘leader’ saying that ‘Russia is at war with the West’. Of course, that depends on how you define ‘leader’, but for all his frustration with the West, Putin avoids such language and continues to refer to Western states as ‘partners’. Furthermore, the idea that the Russian government’s aim is ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’ is patently absurd. I’m not aware of any Russian leader ever expressing any interest in ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’. As far as I can make out, Moscow isn’t in the slightest interested in what political systems other countries have. Likewise, the statement that Russia ‘seek[s] to overturn our system and all it stands for,’ is completely over the top – not merely unsubstantiated, but also entirely false. The Integrity Initiative’s politics amount to fearmongering.

Furthermore, as the leaked documents purport to show, the initiative engages in exactly the sort of ‘meddling’ in foreign affairs of which its members accuse Russia. In one instance, project members disliked the Spanish government’s choice for the post of director of Spain’s Department of Homeland Security. The Spanish ‘cluster’ set about lobbying against the candidate on social media, and eventually the Spanish government appointed somebody else. One can well imagine what the reaction would be if it turned out that a network of influential people who secretly belonged to a group funded by the Russian government had successfully lobbied to prevent the appointment of an official in Spain because Russia objected to him or her.

It’s a common complaint that Russian media are controlled by the state. By contrast, the Western media, and Western opinion formers, such as academics and think tank members, are considered to be independent and impartial. Yet in reality, the relationship between them is often far cozier than people understand, and sometimes far cozier than it ought to be. I’m sure that everybody involved in the Integrity Initiative believes that they are acting for the best. But if they have been secretly working with government officials in pursuit of political objectives, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people don’t trust them. There’s a reason why people turn to sources of information which are accused of peddling ‘fake news’: they don’t believe traditional sources. Projects like the Integrity Initiative help strengthen the impression of secret conspiracies and double standards. Far from solving the problem, therefore, they accentuate it,